Have you ever ordered a couch or arm-chair and waited an interminable amount of time for delivery? The usual reason why getting upholstered furniture often takes forever is the fabric. From the manufacturer’s point of view, the fabric is expensive, which would be tolerable if one could count on it moving through the process quickly. However, in the furniture world, you can’t count on that. Above a certain price point, nearly every manufacturer competes on offering lots of variety. Once you pick out a couch that’s the right size and sufficiently comfy, you get handed a book of fabric samples with literally hundreds of choices. Some — indeed, most — of those options are destined to be low runners, rarely chosen options that will appeal to only a very few customers. That creates problems for the manufacturer. Holding all of those options in inventory may just be too costly. A manufacturer may hold some of the more popular variants in inventory, but for the more esoteric choices, they will wait to order the fabric after getting an order for a couch.
But what if you could print the desired pattern for the couch on site?
That’s the approach being tried by Illinois-based Skyline Furniture. From Crain’s Chicago Business (Local manufacturer bets on fast fashion for furniture, Feb 17):
Inside the company’s original 80,000-square-foot factory in south suburban Thornton sits a costly new piece of machinery that no other U.S. furniture maker has. Wecker sees it as the key to the future: a digital textile printer capable of producing fabric in any one of 500 colors or patterns.
Digital textile printers allowed clothing shops like Zara and H&M to accelerate a garment’s time from runway to store. Wecker, 38, is applying the fast-fashion concept to furniture. Together with DwellStudio designer Christiane Lemieux, she’s launched a new venture, Cloth & Company, with exclusive collections for retailers Wayfair, Overstock, One Kings Lane and Modsy. The goal is to offer Skyline’s customers like Target.com the ability to sell customized furniture at midrange prices that ships in six days.
At one level, this is a pretty standard postponement story — delaying the differentiation of a product allows manufacturers to provide more variety without having inventory explode. It is essentially the approach Dell took that gave them a nice run in the PC market. Here Skyline is going for a dimension of variety that (a) customers greatly value and (b) is expensive to provide in a conventional manner. Printing the pattern on the fabric solves allows them to deliver quickly while holding only common base materials.
Such postponement strategies usually have higher costs. That is, printing yards of a particular pattern is likely more expensive than grabbing a couple of yards from a conventional long production run. However, the inventory savings from not holding lots of patterns as well as a price premium from delivering rapidly could conceivably cover the additional production cost.
Another point here is about what it takes to compete as an American manufacturer. Producing in the US will necessitate higher cost and that means having some reason why customers should cover that added expense. Variety AND quick delivery would be very good reasons for customers to open their pocketbooks.